I had a surreal experience yesterday as I was motoring along Baden Powell Drive on my way to the Mitchell’s Plain Regional Court. I was due to testify against a man who had attacked me some time ago, attempting to rob me of my all my camera gear and birding optics. This was to be my first time as a witness and I was naturally quite preoccupied with how things would turn out, a bit phased out and operating almost on auto-pilot.
Baden Powell runs along the northern edge of False Bay and connects the south Peninsula with the mountainous interior. Much of this dramatic road is located essentially on the endless stretch of beach that extends to the east from Muizenberg. The scenery is exceptional, with the deep-blue waves of the bay stretching away to Cape Point on one side, and the ever-spreading suburbs and slums of Mitchell’s Plain and Khayelitsha on the other.
As I rumbled along, all-but oblivious to these remarkable surroundings, my eyes registered something that my brain simply refused to accept. Perched on the armco barrier between the road and the beach, maybe 10m from the rushing traffic, was a dark, medium-large bird. This bird could and should have been a Kelp Gull or an Egyptian Goose or a Pied Crow, or even some kind of heron or buzzard… But as I drove past I realised that it wasn’t any of these usual suspects. It was a vulture. A globally Critically Endangered Hooded Vulture to be precise!
As quickly as I could, and risking being late for my appointment with the criminal justice system, I turned around and headed back to check out what was surely some sort of optical illusion. But on passing the bird again, I was forced to concede the impossible – it was indeed a living, breathing vulture. I hastily pulled over, grabbed my camera and set about securing some evidence of the bird’s miraculous presence. Luckily, it sat quite tamely at its roadside perch, calmly looking on as I slowly approached while snapping away feverishly.
The vulture was an adult, in shaggy but serviceable condition. It was fully 1500 km out of its regular range, and in a setting so inappropriate that passage through a wormhole in the space:time continuum seemed the most likely explanation for its current manifestation! In reality though, after consulting with Trevor Hardaker – hot-shot birder and regional hub for information on sightings of vagrant birds – I learned that an errant Hooded Vulture had evidently wandered down to the Cape from the bushveld some time ago, and had been causing quite a stir among local birdwatchers for the last few months, making several previous appearances, most recently just up the road at the Strandfontein Sewage Works.
This information may have slightly diminished the shiny excitement of my sighting, but as I drove away to my legal destiny, I took one last, incredulous look at the tousled traveller. The vulture stared beadily back. Who knows why it was there, where it came from or where was set to go. I could only thank my lucky stars that our paths had crossed, and be sincerely grateful for such a quirky and memorable encounter with a true avian celebrity!